The Old Gaol was built in 1748 with funds provided by Richard Grenville Temple, Lord Viscount of Cobham.
Richard Temple (1675-1749) by Sir Godfrey Kneller, c. 1710. © National Portrait Gallery.
THE GAOL: timeline
1891: used as a fire station
1892: became derelict
1974: bought by avdc
1985: Bought by buckingham heritage trust
1993: museum opened
2000: roof added to exercise yard
why was the gaol built?
There was nowhere safe to put criminals. The original gaol, which was part of the castle on Castle Hill where the church is nowadays, burnt down in the 1725 Second Great Fire of Buckingham.
Thereafter Buckingham had only a temporary lock-up. We don't know where this was. But we do know it was so insecure that, in 1743, the execution of a George Sansbury — convicted of murdering a tax collector in Padbury — was ordered immediately for fear that he would be sprung from gaol by accomplices otherwise.
2. CIVIC AMBITION
At stake for Buckingham was the question of the Summer County Assizes. These were annual court hearings commissioned by royal charter. Whichever town in the county held the Assizes was considered the county town, with numerous privileges and much status attached. To hold the Assizes, a town needed a decent gaol.
Prior to the early 1400s, Buckingham enjoyed exclusive hosting of the Summer Assizes. Then Little Brickhill took over. In 1553 and then in 1684, Buckingham's right to hold the Assizes was re-affirmed. But, by the late 1600s, this status had been snatched by the local town of Aylesbury.
Only with Viscount Cobham's 1747 Act of Parliament did Buckingham regain the Assizes. The building of a new gaol was evidently part of the deal, because the gaol was built the year after in 1748.
In 1849, just ten years after the £1m+ renovation to the front of the Gaol, Aylesbury took back the right to hold the Buckinghamshire Summer Assizes. It has held this status ever since. Prisoners would no longer be tried in Buckingham. So no longer was the Gaol a vital enterprise.
why does the gaol have battlements?
The aim of the Gaol was to house prisoners. Yet in 1748 it was built in the Gothic style with crenellations and arrow-slits to resemble a castle — a military installation, and an outdated one at that. Why?
Because of politics. The Old Gaol needed to look as credible as possible as a formidable prison. Then parliament would agree in 1747 that Buckingham could, once more, hold the Summer Assizes.
what modifications have been made?
Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878)
In 1839, architect Sir George Gilbert Scott, born in Gawcott, added the extension now housing the Gaol's front door. This was the gaoler's house. Further cells were built too.
During the late 1800s, the cells upstairs and downstairs lost their barrel-vaulted ceilings. Dividing walls were locked through. At some point, rooms with conventional windows were configured to overlook the exercise yard.
In 2000, a glass roof was added to the exercise yard funded by the National Lottery.
what has the gaol been used for?
From 1836, the Goal was used to house the newly-formed Borough Police force. In 1892, the police moved up the road to the new station on Moreton Road. The Gaol building was condemned, having served briefly as a fire station.
From then until its purchase in 1974 by Aylesbury Vale District Council (AVDC), the Gaol was used variously as an armoury, cafe, restaurant, antiques shop, public toilets and electricity substation.
In 1985, the Buckingham Heritage Trust was formed to buy the building from AVDC. The Friends of the Museum was founded in 1991. The Old Gaol Museum was opened in 1993.
The building was given a Grade II listing in 1952.